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Holding hands

A $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health was awarded to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) in collaboration with the National Association of Pasifika Organizations (NAOPO) and Papa Ola Lōkahito, to train and support community health workers in Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) communities. This funding is part of a broader initiative to address healthcare disparities and improve access to medical services in these underserved populations.

jabsom exterior sign
The John A. Burns School of Medicine

Community health workers, often referred to as uncles and aunties, provide essential guidance and support that formal health professionals may not offer. Need help navigating WIC? “Call Auntie; she can help you apply.” Hesitant about getting vaccinated? “Uncle got his shot; he’ll tell you what you need to know.” These trusted figures, despite their lack of formal training or Western education, have deep-rooted trust within their communities.

“When we’re talking about Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, we also have to consider our colonial history and the legacies attached to that. Oftentimes, that leads to a lot of mistrust,” said Tellie Matagi of Papa Ola Lōkahi, a community partner with JABSOM’s Department of Native Hawaiian Health. “When we go into a situation we’re looking for that friendly face, someone who sounds like us, who looks like us, acts like us. We want someone we can go up to and say ‘auntie, here’s my problem, here’s my issue,’ and auntie will very kindly take you by the hand and say ‘let me walk you through this process.’”

“Peau o le Vasa” to address health disparities

Recognizing their importance, JABSOM, NAOPO and Papa Ola Lōkahi, launched the “Peau o le Vasa” project. This initiative, whose name means “the waves of the ocean” in Samoan, aims to develop a comprehensive curriculum for community health workers that incorporates language, culture and the environmental context of NHPI communities.

“This is an unprecedented partnership and project that brings together a diverse group of Pacific Islanders to address our shared health concerns in ways that are culturally meaningful as well as sustainable beyond the life of this funded project,” said Keaweʻaimoku Kaholokula, chair of Native Hawaiian Health at JABSOM and a co-principal investigator for Peau o le Vasa.

Through the efforts of community health workers, the project hopes to encourage NHPI community members to seek treatment for chronic conditions, such as diabetes, stroke and heart disease, to reduce the prevalence of these health disparities.

“It is those communities that have the largest disparities that suffer the most. So we are looking to address it in a way that changes that,” Matagi said.

Read more at JABSOM.

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